eHealth attack doesn’t add up

by Charles Wright on March 2, 2012

According to an email message promoting her astonishing expose of an alleged $294 million blow-out in the budget for the PCEHR, and a comment piece in which she claimed that the project had “morphed into a lumbering monster that remains frustratingly out of everyone’s grasp”, The Australian’s Karen Dearne claimed that she spent “a solid three days, including most of the weekend” to “track down, make sense of and verify”  her story.

Unfortunately for the credibility of both Ms Dearne and The Australian, however, it turns out that the only factual morsel that can be gathered from her “detailed analysis of statutory records available from the federal Health Department, AusTender, the Senate Community Affairs committee and the Council of Australian Governments” is this: Karen Dearne cannot add up.

As Health Minister Tanya Plibersek told Parliament, there has been no budget blow-out. Ms Dearne seems to have double counted some of the sources of funding for the PCEHR and NEHTA.In short, it seems, accurately reporting on ehealth is out of Ms Dearne’s grasp.

Pulse IT magazine picks up the story this morning with some extensive quotes from the minister that constitute utter humiliation for the national daily and a serious indictment of its reporting standards:

“The $760 million figure cited in The Australian cannot be reconciled with either the personally controlled electronic health records system or the COAG funding allocations. It seems to have been reached by making significant errors in calculation, including the double counting of funds. They seem to have been simply added together and, in many cases, double counted.”

The recipients of Ms Dearne’s widely distributed email are likely to be re-assessing her claim that “Actually, I think this one is value for your paywall money, people”.

That should also include blogger David More, who completely fell for the flawed arithmetic, declaring that, “On the basis that these figures are about right – and let’s not quibble about a few million here or there – it is safe to say this is a bit of an overrun.” He really should have done some more quibbling.

It’s not as if we haven’t seen previous evidence that Ms Dearne’s pursuit of NEHTA has out-run her professional objectivity, and that she is incapable of accepting any version of reality that contradicts her views. Both NEHTA and DoHA told her she had got it wrong. As she does so often, however, she apparently categorised their comments as irrelevant, and attached them to the bottom of the story, as some sort of obligatory nod to the principle of balanced reporting.

It is surely undeniable that she has been engaged in a persistently negative campaign against NEHTA that, as I’ve noted previously, amounts to journalistic stalking of a group of highly experienced professionals working on a project of vital importance to the future of healthcare in this country.

So where is The Australian’s coverage of Ms Plibersek’s remarks? I’ve been using my paywall money to scour its website, using the advanced search tool, and I can see nothing. That’s the very least you’d expect from a newspaper that has made such a serious allegation. It’s a simple matter of fair play, particularly when its web site is continuing to run Ms Dearne’s allegations that the PCEHR development is costing $1.04 million a day in a prominent position.

And the next step must surely be either a defence of Ms Dearne’s arithmetic, or a prominent retraction.

In my opinion, it’s time for NEHTA and DoHA to look at the complaints procedure and some of the general principles of the Press Council:

  • Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.
  • Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.
  • Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.

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